Competence Continuum


My daughter and I have an interesting pastime. We take long walks in the evening, and talk about stuff. Just stuff. Some of it is trivial and silly. Other things are profound and deep.

Explaining concepts to a child, and answering the probing questions that follow, often let me clarify (to myself) some vague and ill-defined positions I’ve accepted earlier.

Yesterday, we discussed competence and excellence. And the Peter Principle… “Each man rises to his level of incompetence.”

I stated my view of the continuum thusly:

Ignorance: Lack of knowledge about something.

Incompetence: Inability to execute with even modest quality or efficiency.

Mediocre: Able to do it, but far below acceptable standards.

Average: Modestly adequate. Tolerable. Barely acceptable.

Competent: Having capacity to do it – and do it well.

Good: Competence, with an edge. Better in one (or many) ways than most.

Excellent: Top notch. Superior quality standards. Hard to improve upon.

World-class: Reaching the highest stratum in the universe.

World #1: THE ultimate best in the world. Usually one. Rarely, a tiny group.

Then, we discussed specific examples. Like cooking, playing chess and writing books. And we mentioned names. Like Diego Maradona, and John McEnroe, and Michael Jackson.

My point was that anyone (barring serious physical or mental impediments that may interfere) can aspire to being world-class, as long as they have the discipline to raise their “level of incompetence” to a higher plane.

It’s just a question of knowing the price to pay – and then choosing to pay it.

Yes, it might take ten years – or longer.

Yes, it demands an obsessive, maniacal focus on one (or a few) things, to the exclusion of much else.

Yes, it means giving up something – which may be more precious, more important, that matters more.

That’s the price one pays for being “world class”. As a Spanish proverb goes, “Take what you want and pay for it, says God”.

Beyond that point, it’s a random variable.

There are 512 world-class soccer players at FIFA 2010, but only one Messi. There have been thousands over the years, but only one Diego Maradona, and one Pele.

Being a Pele or a Maradona, a Michael Jackson or an Oprah Winfrey, a John McEnroe or a Gary Kasparov, isn’t predictable. It’s sheer luck.

What do you think?

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